David MottonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by David Motton
Tow car drivers looking for a family car are spoiled for choice at the moment, which makes the update of the Mazda 6 saloon and tourer a timely one. With the new Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat on sale, and a new Škoda Superb unveiled this week, competition is getting tougher all the time.
It's a subtle facelift rather than a radical overhaul. In fact, the most exciting news if you're wondering what tow car to buy and you're thinking of a Mazda 6 is that Mazda is thinking of bringing in 4x4 versions of the car.
More on that later. For now, though, let's concentrate on the cars you'll be able to buy when the new 6 officially goes on sale on 23 February.
On the outside, only the top-spec Sport Nav models look any different, with a new grille, LED headlights, running lights and fog lights, and new 19-inch alloy wheels in a dark finish.
It's in the cabin that changes to the Mazda 6 are more noticeable. The most obvious difference is the new seven-inch touchscreen, which sits proud of the rest of the dashboard and looks a bit like a tablet computer that's been stuck to the dash. This style of screen either looks up-to-the-minute or a bit of an afterthought depending on your point of view, but more and more car makers are opting for this type of design. All cars have a Multimedia Commander (a rotary control in the style of Audi's MMI and BMW's iDrive) and there's a digital radio, which was a notable omission from the old car's spec sheet.
The 6 now has an electronic parking brake – a first for Mazda. Like tablet-style touchscreens it's a love-hate feature, but we think that push-button parking brakes are a plus when stopping and starting on hills when towing, because there's no worry about the handbrake slipping. In our experience they hold car and caravan still first time, every time, with no need to yank on a handbrake with undue force.
The dashboard is better finished than before, although it doesn't match the standard set by the VW Passat. In terms of space, there's enough room for a six-foot passenger to comfortably sit behind a six-foot driver, although both the saloon and tourer (estate) models trail the biggest family cars for luggage space.
As well as the changes in the cabin, Mazda has made several improvements under the skin. Additional sound deadening is said to drop noise levels by 25%, great when you're in your car for prolonged stints on your caravan holidays.
On our test drive the new car did seem quieter, although road noise was still noticeable on coarsely surfaced roads. We'd say the new Ford Mondeo and VW Passat are more hushed at speed, although the 6 is now a better long distance cruiser than it was.
Ride comfort has also improved, although again it's an evolutionary step rather than a wholesale change. The ride can still seem a little firm and fidgety around town, but improves as speeds rise. However, it's worth noting that the top-spec Sport Nav cars on 19-inch wheels ride more harshly than more affordable models on 17-inch wheels. The bigger alloys do look great, though.
To drive, the Mazda 6 is still an enjoyable car when the road twists and turns. The changes that have been made to the chassis shouldn't alter the 6's credentials as a tow car, either. Although more softly set-up than before, there's no reason to think it will be any less stable than its predecessor when towing.
The 6 is available with a choice of two 2.0-litre petrols (145PS and 165PS) and a pair of 2.2-litre diesels (150PS and 175PS). All but the 165PS petrol are available with manual and automatic gearboxes.
The diesels are more likely to appeal to caravanners, and both engines perform well. Neither is whisper-quiet, but the improved sound-deadening means the engines sound more distant than before.
Torque rather than power is what matters when towing a caravan, and the 150PS (148bhp) engine packs a 280lb ft punch all the way from 1800-2600rpm. The six-speed manual gearbox changes gear with a neat and precise action, and promises better economy than the automatic. The official combined figure is 68.9mpg for the saloon and 64.2mpg for the tourer.
The six-speed automatic changes gear smoothly, but it hurts the Mazda's fuel figures. The saloon's worsens to 58.9mpg, the tourer's to 57.6mpg.
Stick with the more economical manual, and the 2.2D 150PS saloon has a kerbweight of 1553kg, which gives an 85% match figure of 1320kg. The legal towing limit is 1600kg for a braked trailer on a 12% gradient.
The more powerful diesel is just 9kg heavier, unless Mazda chooses to bring in the 4x4 version that we drove. Mazda has two high-powered diesel automatics in the country for evaluation, and we drove one of them.
It has the makings of a very impressive tow car. The four-wheel-drive transmission adds 60kg, which improves the 85% match figure (although the legal towing limit is unchanged). With 310lb ft of torque, there's muscle to spare for towing any sensibly matched caravan, and the four-wheel-drive system puts that power to the road smoothly and undramatically.
In some European markets, four-wheel drive is available on both diesels and with a choice of manual and automatic transmissions. Mazda hasn't decided which spec, if any, to bring to the UK, but is considering the 150PS diesel as well as the 175PS model, which would help keep the price affordable and give Mazda a point of difference from other manufacturers selling 4x4 versions of high-spec, high-powered models.
Mazda has told us it wouldn't need to sell many 4x4s to make any addition to the range worthwhile – as few as 100 sales per year could be enough to tempt the company to offer at least one version of the 6 with four-wheel drive. If you'd be interested, start lobbying your local dealer now as a decision will be made soon. If it gets the green light, the Mazda 6 4x4 could be in showrooms by the middle of the year. As and when the 4x4 arrives, expect a premium of around £1000 or more.
In the meantime, prices for the latest Mazda 6 start from £19,975 rising to £28,795 for the top spec 175PS Tourer with an automatic gearbox. All cars are well equipped for the money, something we've come to expect from Mazda.
Is the Mazda 6 a better tow car than the new Mondeo and Passat? The answer to that question will have to wait until we review the cars back-to-back at the 2015 Tow Car Awards.